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Nothing's 'Unknown' about January Jones
Updated 2/10/2011 7:12 PM ET
LOS ANGELES — "I'm getting a milkshake," announces January Jones, settling down at a table in the back of the Peninsula hotel after a long day. "I deserve one."

Tucked in the corner of the library room, Jones, clad in a turquoise Roland Mouret sheath and light makeup, is somewhat anonymous. No one approaches the table for an autograph or sticks a camera phone in her face. But on the street where she lives, paparazzi swarm.

"They wait down the street on either end to see which way I'm going to go," says Jones, who is photographed daily doing the most mundane activities: walking her dog, running to Kinko's, shopping (and walking her dog again).

PHOTOS: Have you met Miss Jones?

"The weird thing about it is, it kind of makes me feel safe," says Jones, 33. "I live alone, and I feel like they're always there, they're always watching. If someone were to come in and rob me — there's photographers. It's like the best security system ever.

"Maybe I'm that pathetic at this point," she says with a laugh. "But it's a constant presence."

She's half-joking, but the actress, who shot to stardom as all-American housewife Betty Draper in the 1960s-set television series Mad Men, has plotted ways to keep her single self safe. It helps to have a yappy dog and a foot-thick steel door on her bedroom, a gift from a Navy SEAL friend. "At night I crank it and my bedroom's a safe room," she says.

A far more sinister loss of identity is the crux of Jones' new movie, Unknown (in theaters Feb. 18). She plays Elizabeth Harris, the mysterious wife of lauded botanist Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), who emerges from a traumatic accident as a hunted man stripped of his identity and left completely anonymous.

The thriller's plot turns on a dime as Liz's cool exterior hinges on a powerful secret.

Director Jaume Collett-Serra (Orphan) needed "one of those icy blondes that are full of mystery" for the role. "The moment I met her I knew she was our lady," he says.

Hitchcock-worthy

In Unknown, Neeson desperately attempts to reconnect with his wife while on the run with a local cabdriver (Diane Kruger). He calls Jones' beauty mysterious.

"Alfred Hitchcock totally would have fallen in love with her," he says. "She's got that thing that I wish I had. She's just really open and honest, and yet when the camera hits her face, she's not open and honest.

"She's like a multitude of various emotions. The audience supplies all the emotions on her face."

Her cool, impassive Grace Kelly looks are also a protective shield. "I sort of feel like I'm acting all the time on set, even when they say 'cut,' " Jones says, sipping on her chocolate shake.

A self-taught actress, she still weighs when, and how, to speak up on set with her ideas. "I think the more confident I get with myself, the more I'm allowing myself to be heard."

Collett-Serra says her perspective had an influence on the movie; he credits Jones with deciding Elizabeth's fate.

"When she became involved ... there were options" with the script, he says. "There were other ways to go about it that maybe would have made her character more sympathetic, but she was always basically willing to sacrifice her weight in the story in order to benefit (the movie)," he says.

Unknown pairs her for the first time with Neeson, whom Jones calls "everything I kind of expected him to be, which is great. He's a lot more soft-spoken than I thought he would be. He's kind of got this quiet wit, which is very charming and smart."

Bags packed

Unknown is only the first of several projects Jones has in store for theaters this year.

"That's one of the greatest things about the success of Mad Men is that people are able to see my range as an actress," Jones says. She enters superhero orbit this summer as the telepathic, tough-as-a-diamond Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class, and will slip into the psychological thriller The Hungry Rabbit Jumps as Nicholas Cage's wife later this year.

Appropriately enough, her first foray into X-Men territory will take place in the Mad Men era.

"When I was first approached, they were like, 'By the way, it's 1962,' " she says with a note of amused exasperation. "I was like, 'You must be kidding me.' "

Luckily, Emma Frost is nothing like Betty Draper. Sure, the Cuban Missile Crisis is the historical anchor, but the action flick, which co-stars Kevin Bacon and James McAvoy, focuses less on slick '60s style and more on Frost's bodacious curves and indestructible powers.

Raised in Sioux Falls, S.D., Jones has made Los Angeles home for 11 years, but her Los Feliz house is mostly empty. "I haven't been here the last two years, with the exception of four months in the summer for Mad Men," says Jones, ticking off her temporary homes: New Orleans, Berlin, London, Georgia. "That's the only thing I struggle with — with the success of the job — is that I've had to be kind of a vagabond."

A three-movie deal to play the buxom Emma Frost was worth stowing "lots of books and movies and pictures and my pillow and my baby blanket and all of my creams and bath things" into a suitcase to jet off to London one day after Mad Men wrapped last August.

But with greater success comes perilous scrutiny, and Jones is choosing her parts carefully after years playing supporting roles in films such as Anger Management,Love Actually,We Are Marshall and Pirate Radio.

She's all too aware of the costs of mistakes.

"It's a very fickle business, and any wrong move, unfortunately, could be the end of it all," she says calmly, dipping a french fry into her milkshake.

After X-Men wraps, Jones is still banking on returning to Betty Draper for Season 5 in late April, despite negotiations between series creator Matthew Weiner and Lionsgate, which produces the show.

"They should just give him whatever he asks for," Jones says with a roll of her eyes. "I mean, the guy is the show."

Although AMC spokeswoman Olivia Dupuis says an announcement has not been made on when the show would return, Joel Stillerman, AMC senior vice president of programming, confirmed Season 5 of Mad Men at the Television Critics Association in January.

It's just a matter of when.

"If it gets too late in the next couple of months and there hasn't been anything resolved, then I'll just go and say, 'Listen, I'm going to take a project,' " Jones says, noting how producers work with the cast. And while Mad Men is known to shed characters at the whim of Weiner, Jones says Betty is safe, despite reduced screen time in Season 4.

"Her presence, even when it's not on camera, is such a huge part of the show, and she'll always be in it," she predicts.

Besides, Betty needs some redemption. Fans have been merciless in judging the woman who began the series as the repressed trophy wife of star adman Don Draper and who has since morphed into his cruel-edged, emotionally bankrupt ex. Jones is well aware of the fan reaction.

"The first two seasons people felt straight-up pity and felt 'Poor Betty' and 'Why is he so mean to her?' " she says. "And now they're like 'Ugh, Betty.' "

Not that she takes the criticism personally. "If I'm able to go into a character and realistically portray someone who is awful and have people hate me for it, then I'm doing well," Jones says. "I'll take that as a compliment."

Thanks to Betty's nasty ways, Jones is getting offered juicier roles. "The first couple of seasons, people empathized with her or pitied her, and I was getting kind of the sad, poor-me roles, or the victim roles, and now I'm getting the badass, bad-guy roles now that Betty's (changed)," she says.

The petite star, whom Neeson protectively describes as "a little stick figure — any gust of wind, she's going to snap in half," is gleeful at her newfound toughness. "I'll be forever grateful to Matthew Weiner and Mad Men for doing that for me," she says.

Behind the scenes

In person, Jones has the kind of devilish bedside manner that has Neeson anointing her as "a cool dude," the kind of girl who "has her cigarette and her glass of beer and we chat about everything."

"My wife became friends with her," says producer Joel Silver. "She says the wildest things."

It's apparent that her publicists, who sit nearby during the interview, care far more about censorship than Jones does. Jones is friendly and speaks freely, answering pointed questions unself-consciously.

Such as:

As the new face of Versace, is she obligated to wear the designer, such as her plunging red fringed dress at the Golden Globes?

"I think people assume I have a contract with them or something, and I don't," she says. And to heck with the critics. "Joan Rivers thought it was slutty," she says with a shrug and a smile. "Everyone can have their own opinion. I certainly do."

How would she compare her on-screen husbands (Jon Hamm, 39, Neeson, 58, Cage, 47)?

"They're gentlemen," she says of all three. "The intimate scenes in movies as an actor are always the weirdest, so it's nice to be able to experience them with people who aren't scumbags."

Does she weigh whether to walk red carpets with famous dates, like ex-boyfriend Jason Sudeikis?

"It definitely puts your relationship out there, so you shouldn't do it before you're ready," Jones says. That said, "I'd definitely do it again."

Distance, she says, was a big factor in her breakup with Sudeikis, whom Jones dated from July until January. (Sudeikis lives in New York, where he shoots Saturday Night Live.)

"We're still friends," she says. "We still keep in touch. But it's been a long haul with schedules and all that stuff."

Asked if she would date someone famous again, Jones says yes. "I think you just date whoever you have a connection with. I think ideally it would be easier to meet someone who's not in your business, just because if we're both working, it's very difficult to work out. But what are the chances I'm going to meet some great scientist that understands that I have to make out with other guys on a daily basis?"

That said, marriage and kids are "definitely" in her future. "Not to be cliché, but why do this if you don't have anyone to share it with?"

For now, Jones can go toe-to-toe with her seasoned co-stars. "Jon Hamm was teasing me the other day. He was like: 'I'm the youngest guy you've made out with in five years.' "

She gives a wicked grin. "I think it just makes him feel better because he's nearly 40."

Posted 2/9/2011 9:45 PM ET
Updated 2/10/2011 7:12 PM ET
At the Screen Actors Guild Awards: January Jones' stylish beauty has been gracing red carpets this awards season, and it'll grace the big screen starting Feb. 18 in Unknown.
By Chris Pizzello, AP
At the Screen Actors Guild Awards: January Jones' stylish beauty has been gracing red carpets this awards season, and it'll grace the big screen starting Feb. 18 in Unknown.

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